LOUDON, N.H. — Brad Keselowski is back on top of NASCAR.
Well, for a race, at least.
But he’s quickly running out of time to make it back to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and defend his series championship.
His first pole of the season might give his season the boost he needs to become a contender. Keselowski turned a lap of 135.922 mph on Friday to set a track record at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Keselowski won only his third career pole and first since 2011. With eight races left until the 12-driver Chase field is set, Keselowski is winless and sitting in an uncomfortable 13th place in the points standings.
“There is a sense of urgency but not a sense of panic,” Keselowski said. “I think there is a strong difference between the two. We are eager to get going, we are hungry and feel like we can do it but I don’t feel a sense of panic. There are still two months of racing essentially to get into the Chase.”
Keselowski led a fast day at the track as nine drivers topped the previous track record held by Ryan Newman, who went 135.232 in 2011.
Ten drivers topped that lap until points leader Jimmie Johnson’s second-fastest qualifying time was scrapped after his car failed inspection. His No. 48 Chevrolet, which had two issues in the pre-qualifying inspection, failed after his attempt because both sides of the front were too low. He’ll start in the rear.
“We were able to get the car right,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “just not exactly right.”
Johnson will actually start behind 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd. Shepherd will become the oldest driver to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Shepherd, who went only 128.290 in qualifying, made his Cup debut in 1970 and won four times in NASCAR’s top series. He finished as high as fifth in the final standings in 1990 and hasn’t started a race since 2006.
Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon had no problem with Shepherd competing on Sunday.
“I think that’s quite an accomplishment,” Gordon said. “We talk about how amazing it is to see Mark Martin out there being competitive over 50 years old, but to just go out there and do what he does as far as Morgan is concerned at 71, that’s amazing.”
TORONTO — Dario Franchitti, fresh off his first podium finish of the year, carried that momentum into Toronto with a pole-winning run for the first of two races at Exhibition Place.
The four-time IndyCar Series champion was flawless in three rounds of Friday qualifying to coast to the top starting spot at Toronto, a 1.75-mile street track where Franchitti has three career victories. It’s his fifth pole at Toronto and third on the season.
But his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team had to hustle all afternoon to repair damage to his No. 10 Honda incurred during a crashed in morning practice.
“I made it difficult this morning — I made a mistake in turn five there, took the right side off the car,” he said. “The guys had to work and repair the car. I was able to keep finding a little bit every lap. Felt really good about that.”
Franchitti heads into this weekend’s races — IndyCar will run both Saturday and Sunday — ranked a disappointing 11th in the IndyCar standings. He’s not won a race since last year’s Indianapolis 500, and his third-place finish Sunday at Pocono was his first podium of the year.
He’s not written off his season, though.
“I’ve never looked at it that way. Whether I was first, or at one point this year I was last in the championship, so never say never,” Franchitti said. “Until it’s mathematically impossible, you just keep fighting every week. We’ve put ourselves in a bit of a hole, but we’ll see if we can dig our way out.”
Sebastien Bourdais was second in his first appearance in the Fast Six this year. His previous best qualifying effort was seventh, and this is his first front row start since joining Dragon Racing before the 2012 season.
The 2004 winner at Toronto, Bourdais has had a miserable season and has yet to finish a race higher than 11th. He said Dragon recently discovered a way to address the understeer on his car and it showed Friday.
“We were definitely starting to wonder if we could turn the boat around a little bit,” he said. “Definitely feels like this weekend we did. Finally I can feel like I’m doing something behind the wheel rather than going along for the ride.
“When you’ve been deep in the hole, finally you seem to be able to see some light, it feels really good. Pretty excited for the boys. It’s been a lot of work, just like everybody else, but when you don’t have the results, it’s twice as hard.”
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